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Scaling positive systems change: Addressing underlying conditions and sustainability 

A business woman talking in front of a group of people in a conference room.

For the last eight years, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors has led the Shifting Systems Initiative, which encourages funders to provide longer-term, less restrictive funds to help grantee partners scale their solutions and impact to support positive systems change.  We’ve seen many funders emphasize grants to organizations that can scale successfully. At some point, the proliferation of too many pilot projects was identified as a problem by both funders and organizations themselves, without enough of them making a significant dent in the overall problem. So, effective scaling of successful pilots became the solution. But what do we really mean by scaling impact, and how does that mesh with systems change approaches and transformative change? 

In our Shifting Systems Initiative, we developed dozens of case studies highlighting examples of scaled impact in work that includes three important considerations for exploring scale: reach, depth in communities, and mindset shifts.  

It’s not enough to measure ‘reach’ in defining ‘scale’

Counting the number of people or households who have benefitted or even adopted new practices—such as a new farming technique or early childhood practices—does not automatically make nonprofit intervention programs sustainable and create lasting change. The problems nonprofit organizations are trying to solve exist because of contextual conditions that are perpetuating those problems—something in the system(s) is maintaining the status quo and preventing positive change. The programs need to address those conditions, which stem from underlying issues of power dynamics, public policies, control over resources, and incentive structures.  

For example, a project that seeks to mitigate homelessness by providing additional shelters and units of affordable housing cannot create sustainable, scaled impact if the underlying conditions are not addressed. Those conditions likely include local housing policies that permit easy evictions after a short period of non-payment, or wealthy neighborhoods restricting affordable housing permits, and are, in turn, maintained by the strength of landlord organizations and wealthy households that hold sway over city councils.  

Tackling these underlying systemic issues is a complex chain of cause-and-effect that will require funders to be more patient, give longer-term funding, and accept the risk that comes with solving complex problems. Organizations will need to negotiate with donors to build into grants the funding and time needed to put effort into shifting these underlying policies and power dynamics.  

Scaled efforts need a long-term ‘payer’

Successfully scaling interventions—whether to improve healthcare or education services for disadvantaged communities or to enhance the voter registration process—requires identifying who will ultimately serve as the “payer” of these innovations when philanthropic funding ends. These “payers” need to be involved in systems change processes from the beginning.  

Given that public funding dwarfs philanthropy, most scaling efforts will ultimately need public resources to be sustainable. Many funders are reluctant to engage with government bureaucracies as future “payers,” and question public officials’ competence or commitment. They contrast their experiences dealing with government offices and politicians with their experiences partnering with the dynamic, personable nonprofit leaders who run nimble organizations. These leaders also willingly (and necessarily) engage in a back-and-forth with funders on program priorities and grant terms. But if funders and their grantees don’t build in support for partnerships with government, many of these scaling efforts will not last for long after the grant period ends. 

For example, for more than 15 years, the Michigan Office of the Foundation Liaison has created true partnerships between philanthropy and the state government to improve lives through innovative programs and policy reform. In California, 42 public-private partnerships leverage private funding to work on areas from COVID-19 support to addressing homelessness. In such cases, the philanthropic sector and grantee partners are not substituting for government but partnering with them in anticipation of good practices lasting beyond the end of a grant period. 

Successful scaling needs effective personnel 

Nonprofits need staff who are equipped with the necessary skills to understand these elements of scale, sustainability, and systems change. In addition, the team needs people with strong negotiating skills to secure necessary funds from donors. The team also needs people who understand how to get leaders to cede power or resources in favor of fairer outcomes. Doing this work is not easy, but it is possible for individuals who understand the systems in which these underlying conditions must be tackled. Within grantee organizations, proximate community leaders paired with nonprofit leaders who have a clear-eyed view of how to negotiate with donors can be a successful combination. But donors, too, must be ready to listen and learn.      

Nonprofits and their funders usually want the same thing—to know that their efforts and funds are making a lasting impact and are helping as many people as possible. That requires addressing underlying conditions and bringing about positive systems change. Let’s face the challenge of scaling impact by bringing honesty and humility to our design, planning, and evaluation discussions.  

Photo credit: PeopleImages via Getty Images


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